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Tag Archives: Edward Earle

They Made Me a Killer (May 3, 1946)

Incompetent director William C. Thomas’s They Made Me a Killer is based on a screenplay by competent writer Daniel Mainwaring, who was working under the name “Geoffrey Homes.” Mainwaring was a prolific screenwriter whose most famous contribution to film noir is his script for Out of the Past (1947), which was based on his novel Build My Gallows High (both were written under his Homes pseudonym).

The script for They Made Me a Killer isn’t the problem. In the hands of a talented director and a better cast of actors, it could have been a crisp little thriller. There’s a decent amount of complexity in its familiar tale of an innocent man on the run, and the dialogue is snappy. Unfortunately it’s all handled so poorly that the protagonist’s flexible ethics end up seeming more like sloppy storytelling than anything else, and all the clever lines are delivered in too ham-handed a fashion to make much of an impact.

Produced by William H. Pine, They Made Me a Killer was released by Pine-Thomas Productions, the B unit of Paramount Pictures. It’s normal for low-budget productions to cut corners, but this picture has some of the most egregious examples of cost-cutting I’ve ever seen. Thomas employs rear projection frequently, and not just for scenes shot in cars, which is when the technique was most commonly used. There are numerous shots in They Made Me a Killer of people standing on a street corner in which everything behind them is clearly rear projected. In one scene, two actors stand in front of a rear-projected house, then one of them turns to walk toward it. The scene immediately cuts to a shot of her ringing the doorbell, standing in front of a door that doesn’t look as though it matches the house we saw in the establishing shot. There are certainly less noticeable and more artful ways to keep a picture under budget.

When They Made Me a Killer begins, Tom Durling (Robert Lowery) is leaving Chicago. His brother was killed there, and he has no desire to stay. He’s leaving his job as an auto mechanic, and heading for San Francisco. Once in California, he stops at an intersection. San Francisco is 248 miles away, and Santa Marta, “The Pearl of the Valley,” is just five miles away. He heads for Santa Marta, hoping to sell his souped-up jalopy, which he has modified to achieve speeds of up to 120 miles per hour.

He’s approached by a potential buyer named Betty Ford (Lola Lane), who tells Durling that she wants her boyfriend to buy the car for her for her birthday. Agreeing to meet her boyfriend the next day to close the deal, he ends up parked outside the Santa Marta Trust and Savings Bank the next morning with Betty exhorting him not to move, even to drive around the block to avoid a parking ticket, while Jack Conley (Edmund MacDonald) and Frank Conley (James Bush) are inside, making a very large withdrawal.

When he had initially shown her what his blocky hot rod could do, Durling had told Betty, “All I wanna do in this town is leave it.” He’ll get his wish, but he’ll get it the hard way.

He’s not the only one. Caught in the crossfire is a hapless little punk named Steve Reynolds (Byron Barr), a bank clerk at the Santa Marta Trust and Savings Bank who’s hanging around the getaway car because he has the hots for Betty.

Betty and the Conley brothers make off with $100,000, but Durling drives them into a ditch. He’s knocked unconscious, the robbers flee, and he’s left to take the rap.

He hangs his hopes for freedom on young Steve Reynolds, who lies in the hospital dying from a bullet wound. Steve’s sister June (Barbara Britton) comes to visit him in the hospital. She and Durling are immediately attracted to each other, and she reluctantly becomes his ally as they race to prove his innocence, and Steve’s.

All of this probably sounds better on paper than it plays out on screen. The acting is bargain basement and the direction is maladroit, turning what could have been an entertaining one-hour programmer into a forgettable snoozer.

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The Harvey Girls (Jan. 18, 1946)

In 1876, a 41-year-old entrepreneur named Fred Harvey opened a string of restaurants along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway line. The eateries catered to middle-class and wealthy travelers alike, and at the height of the franchise’s success, there were more than 80 Harvey House restaurants. Harvey died in 1901, but the Fred Harvey Company continued to build restaurants into the 1960s.

A restaurant chain might seem an unlikely subject for a big-budget, Technicolor, Hollywood musical, but clearly the young, attractive waitresses in their crisp black and white uniforms were enough of a hook. The film opens with the following portentous prologue:

“When Fred Harvey pushed his chain of restaurants farther and farther west along the lengthening tracks of the Santa Fe, he brought with him one of the first civilizing forces this land had known … the Harvey Girls. These winsome waitresses conquered the west as surely as the Davy Crocketts and the Kit Carsons — not with powder horn and rifle, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee. To these unsung pioneers, whose successors today still carry on in the same tradition, we sincerely dedicate this motion picture.”

If all this is to be taken seriously, then who wouldn’t want to lionize these distaff settlers? I haven’t read Samuel Hopkins Adams’s 1942 novel that this film is based on, but it must have been a good story for Hollywood to want to pick it up. Or maybe it was just that Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren realized what a catchy rhythm the phrase “on the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” had.

After the prologue and credits, the film opens on a shot of a moving train. Susan Bradley (Garland) is standing on the deck of the caboose, singing a forgettable song about love. She is heading out west to marry a man whom she only knows from the florid love letters he has written her. When her suitor, H.H. Hartsey (Chill Wills), turns out to be a functionally illiterate cowpoke who had a friend play Cyrano for him by penning the letters himself, Susan parts with him (mostly amicably), and becomes a Harvey girl.

The dramatic conflict, such as it is, comes from the local saloon and gambling house, which also features dancing girls. The owner of the palace of sin, Ned Trent (John Hodiak), and his star attraction, Em (played by a young and foxy Angela Lansbury), fear that the opening of the Harvey House will usher in a new era of respectability and crush their business. In real life of course, Trent’s girls would have been prostitutes and Em would have been their madam, but in the world of 1940s M-G-M musicals, dancing the cancan for hooting and hollering cowboys was about as scandalous as they could get.

Garland and Lansbury both give good performances, and are backed up by a large and talented cast. Virginia O’Brien (as the Harvey girl “Alma from Ohio”) is tough and sassy, and Ray Bolger, most famous for playing the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (1939), here gets to play the Cowardly Homosexual, a popular character type in Hollywood pictures for decades. While his sexual preference is never identified outright, Bolger’s character’s effeminacy and fear of any butch labor (such as shoeing horses), as well as his spirited prancing, leaping, and tap dancing make it clear that he doesn’t have any designs on the ladies.

The Harvey Girls is an entertaining mix of musical and western. But if director George Sidney aspired for it to be anything more than breezy entertainment, it doesn’t show. Judy Garland is always a delight, but Vincente Minnelli’s ability to coax a nuanced performance from her and to tell an engaging story from beginning to end in a musical is sorely missed here. The Harvey Girls is enjoyable, but it’s no Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Also, aside from the standout song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” (which won an Academy Award for best song), no musical number in the picture really stands out.